Last week we were at the mouth of the Columbia River fishing for salmon. When we were there earlier in August, I was flabbergasted by the huge flocks of California brown pelicans on East Sand Island and feeding voraciously on small fish in the estuary.
This trip we moored our boat in the slip next to one used by NOAA Fisheries researchers who were detecting fish tags passed by birds into the sands of the island. I commented on how many brown pelicans there had been in August, and that the numbers were down later in September.
The researchers estimated that at the peak, there had been over 22,000 brown pelicans feeding in the estuary. I asked if they had any idea how many there were when I was their age. Zero! Brown pelicans were extremely rare north of California.
Along with over 10,000 nesting pairs of terns, 8,000 cormorants and uncounted numbers of other fish eating birds in the estuary, and nesting colonies of terns, cormorants, white pelicans and gulls as far inland as Eastern Washington and Idaho, fish eating birds are one of the greatest sources of mortality to juvenile salmon in the Columbia Basin.
Stopping the use of chlorinated hydrocarbon pesticides has allowed these bird populations to prosper and do what they do naturally -- eat fish.
Despite more bird predation, 2010 is seeing some of the greatest returns of salmon in decades. Over 665,000 fall chinook salmon were expected back to the Columbia this year, so commercial, Indian and sport fisheries were liberalized to allow more catch.
Even so, the count over Lower Granite dam is over 25,000 fall chinook salmon and still counting. That is up from 390 in 1990 that instigated their listing as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
You may recall that the sockeye return to the Columbia was over 386,000 this year, and that fisheries opened up all the way into Canada to harvest the surplus. Over 2,200 crossed Lower Granite Dam, up from zero in 1991 that resulted in Snake River sockeye being listed as endangered..
In spite of the record runs of salmon coming back, the National Wildlife Federation and state of Oregon are once again suing the Federal agencies for endangering the Columbia River salmon runs. Despite the hindrance of these foolish lawsuits, the federal government and Mother Nature are bringing the salmon runs back.